Covering a World Cup tournament with the Republic of Ireland – and actually getting to see them play in it – remains the dream that Darragh Maloney will not giving up chasing.
By Darragh Maloney (RTE)
So many of our colleagues and thousands of Irish people have had the pleasure of doing what I am desperate to do but unfortunately I am not in that elite group. I have been close a couple of times but never quite managed it. I was a few hundred miles from one of these historic events but I never got to see it. What am I referring to?
I desperately want to see the Republic of Ireland play a game at a World Cup finals.
There have been a few – 13 of them actually in four different countries over an incredible 12-year period – and unfortunately I have missed them all. So close, yet so far.
I did have some good excuses though. I was doing my Leaving Cert during Italia ’90 and I had just started working for FM104 during USA ’94, but the World Cup in 2002 was the closest I have been – so far – to the Republic of Ireland in the biggest competition in football.
I have, however, been incredibly fortunate to see two World Cup finals ‘live’ and that was as a commentator for RTE in Japan and South Korea in 2002, and then again four years later in Germany. It’s said that your first time is always the best and that was certainly the case for me 12 years ago. I had never even been to a World Cup until I arrived in Seoul, South Korea for the opening match of the first ever staging of the tournament in Asia.
The tournament was such an amazing experience but I knew before I left home that I would get to see Ireland play as I was covering the other half of the World Cup. I was commentating on the matches in South Korea while Mick McCarthy’s squad were in Japan and then I would leave for Japan for the knock-out rounds. If Ireland qualified from their group, they would be going in the opposite direction on the same day.
I was terrified as I sat down beside my legendary colleague Jimmy Magee in the newly-built Seoul World Cup stadium for France versus Senegal. The time-zone change was still affecting me and I never slept a wink the night before the game. The name of Roy Keane, or his picture to be more precise, was everywhere in the build-up to the opening match as news of his departure from Ireland’s squad had spread around the world.
The first match was always going to be special with France beginning the defence of their crown against Senegal, who were appearing in their first ever World Cup and were also a former French colony. The Senegalese were given little chance against the reigning champions but their 1-0 victory over the ’98 winners gave us the first of several shocks in the 17th edition of the tournament.
The next day, John D. O’Brien, my producer, and I travelled south to Ulsan for our next match and we arrived at our hotel just in time to see Ireland’s first match against Cameroon, which was played a few hundred miles away in Niigata, Japan. The result made up for the frustration of not being there and also having to listen to a Korean commentator muddle his way through the names of both teams. We did hear ‘Roy Keane’ a couple of times but the 1-1 draw was a good start for the team.
The noise from the Irish fans during the game was amazing but I got a strange feeling knowing that we would be working in that same stadium – Niigata Stadium – and in the city where they had all been, but in a couple of weeks time.
That experience repeated itself over the coming days as we continued on our journey around South Korea watching the likes of Brazil, South Korea and Spain, while trying to keep tabs on what was going on in the Irish camp.
We saw some great matches and some great players. Brazil versus Turkey was the day after Ireland’s draw in Niigata and we saw Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho at their very best. The South Koreans, under the guidance of Guus Hiddink, proved all of their doubters wrong and their fans were incredible as the country went crazy when their matches were being played. I was one of them – a 2-0 win over Poland had around one million fans watching it on giant screens with over 55,000 in the stadium in Busan.
We had just arrived in Daegu for the Denmark versus Senegal match as Ireland against Germany was kicking off in Ibaraki, Japan. By the time we got to the hotel, Miroslav Klose already had Germany ahead and John D and I sat and watched Ireland try to get back on level terms. We were the only two people in a packed bar watching the game as Robbie Keane finally scored in the 92nd minute – a goal that kept Ireland on course to make the second round.
The final Group E game for Ireland was in Yokohama, Japan on June 11 and we managed to see that too as we had been in Incheon in South Korea watching France crash out of the tournament. They were beaten 2-0 by Denmark and went out of the World Cup without even scoring a goal.
Ireland had better luck as they beat Saudi Arabia 3-0 to clinch their place in the second round with goals from Robbie Keane, Gary Breen and Damien Duff, which set up a meeting with Spain in Suwon, South Korea. We had covered Spain already as they beat Paraguay 3-1 in Jeonjua and they were impressive but not amazing.
The match against the Spanish was going to be played in a city where we would be working in two days’ time. We were there to cover Brazil versus Costa Rica, which Brazil won 5-2 but it was another strange experience as were in a place which would be full of Irish fans just 48 hours after we left.
I wasn’t sure what the Irish fans would make of a quirky place which proudly described itself as ‘the toilet capital of the East’. And it was too – there were toilets everywhere, on display all over the city. I have no idea why any city would want to shout about that title but they would surely come in handy if a few of our fans got caught ‘short’ after the match.
We left South Korea on June 14 and headed for Japan. That same day, Ireland, and their thousands of fans, arrived in Suwon. We were going to Niigata to cover England’s second round match with Denmark, which was a 3-0 victory for the English. We then went back to our base in Tokyo to watch Ireland against Spain.
Watching Ireland playing abroad was nothing new, but being so close to where they were playing in a World Cup was frustrating – even if the games and players we were covering made up for it, slightly. As Ireland lost to Spain, in a penalty shoot-out, there were plenty of tears shed back home and a few in a bar in Tokyo as the adventure came to an end.
Our journey though was far from over and would last another 16 days before we left the World Cup. The disappointment of Ireland’s defeat didn’t last long as we went to Kobe to see Brazil beat Belgium, to Miyagi for Turkey’s victory over Japan, then to Shizuoka to watch Ronaldinho fool David Seaman as Brazil beat England in the quarter-finals.
We then followed Brazil to Saitama for their semi-final win over Turkey before being offered two tickets for the final itself four days later. We changed a couple of flights and extended our hotel stay to make it back to Tokyo for the 64th and last game of the finals.
Ronaldo scored twice as Brazil won the World Cup for the fifth time, beating Germany 2-0 in the final. It was my first World Cup final and was an occasion I will never forget. I have not been to another final but the first is certainly the best.
Despite some close calls (I was in Paris that night with Thierry Henry), Ireland have not made it back to the World Cup yet. I did go to Germany in 2006 but was in the studio in Dublin for South Africa in 2010 and will be there again for Brazil 2014.
My dream of seeing Ireland play at a World Cup will happen someday!
*Image courtesy of Sportsfile